Friday, February 23, 2007
When you live in the heart of Chicago, thick skin is a required adaptation for survival. Within any random city block, residents are confronted by the disorienting enigma of excessive wealth meshing with dire poverty. To care too much is to dangle ineffectually between longings for more and disgust for the chasm that separates the haves from the have nots. One grows quite accustomed to the outstretched hands reaching from anonymous bodies for leftover change out of bulging pocketbooks. The first thing to go is eye contact, followed soon after by the “no, sorry, not this time,” until finally the hands are ignored completely, like the white noise of ocean waves or a ceiling fan.
In college, I had one friend who never quite evolved like the rest of us, whose skin stayed translucent and tender. Much to our dismay, she kept her wallet open, laying dollars and coins in every dirty palm that beckoned from its street corner. “What are you doing?” we hissed. “That newspaper you just bought is three days old, he totally picked that up off the ground and sold it to you.” Our arguments fell on deaf ears. She never disagreed with us but never changed her habits either. Finally, after one too many accusations that she was essentially funding drug addictions, my benevolent friend quietly but firmly relayed to us, that judgments on the spending of that money were not of her concern. Someone in need had asked, and she gave what she could.
I remember the first time I was ever told about the Prodigal Son. I could tell by the way it was presented, that I was supposed to be happy for the youngest son’s glorious reunion with his father, and disappointed in his older brother’s snotty attitude. Maybe it was because I was just a kid and hadn’t experienced yet the remorse of truly foolish behavior that the parable left such a sour taste in my mouth, that in fact, the whole story seemed to reek of injustice. I wish, as a footnote, the Sunday School teacher would have added, “Isn’t it ridiculous that God’s compassion has nothing to do with our actions?! Isn’t it crazy that, heavenly speaking, mercy trumps out fairness and common sense?!” Because who, more than children, are still open to outlandish possibilities and pliable enough to feel at home with backward notions?
The more years we spend here, the more encased we become by our earth-centered logic, where kindness is commendable when bestowed upon the deserving. Giving aid to orphans in Africa is good, very good. Pardoning thieves, liars, murderers or rapists is unacceptable. Handing out cash to homeless alcoholics is just plain foolish and naïve. When we start from here and try to carry this sensible ethos upwards, try to apply it to Christ and His teachings, a disastrous meshing of privation and richness leads to a spiritual stagnancy. No sense can be made of the chasm between logic and divine love, so we dangle ineffectually from a noose of our own making. “God is disgusted with us,” we assume “because we are disgusted with ourselves.”
The only way that mercy, as illustrated by the father of the prodigal son, could even begin to puncture an earthbound worldview, is by Christ, rather than logic, becoming the context out of which all of our thoughts and deeds originate. We pray for our eyes to be opened and for our ears to be attentive to the white noise carrying whispers of Spirit guided directives, reckless with illogical grace. God is love, and thus we must be love. Jesus forgave his murderers, even in the throes of an agonizing crucifixion, and thus we must forgive. Christ desires that “all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth”, and thus we must petition Him for that exact desire.
I have been blessed with an abundance of mercy, and thus it is my duty to be merciful to others, not because I deserve it or they deserve it, but because it is my offering to God. Blessed are those who have the faith to clothe themselves in the promises of Christ, laying aside all earthly assumptions. Blessed are they who rejoice in the mercy bestowed upon them, and in thankfulness spread out that mercy like an impartial blanket on this cold and hungry world.